The Family Advocacy Program at Jacobi Medical Center

How do I recognize child abuse?

Children often do not tell they are being abused because they are embarrassed, scared of being hurt by the person that abused them or afraid of upsetting their caregivers. If you suspect a child is being abused, it is important to believe the child, stay calm, ask questions without planting ideas and seek professional help.

Not all abused children disclose abuse, but they sometimes show signs of abuse or have behavioral changes. Common behaviors that an abused child may exhibit include:

  1. Sudden changes in behavior such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression
  2. Sexualized behavior or advanced sexual knowledge
  3. Changes in school performance
  4. Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  5. Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
  6. Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes
  7. Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
  8. Has difficulty walking or sitting
  9. Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
  10. Experiences a sudden change in appetite
  11. Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example)
  12. Bed wetting
  13. Clinging
  14. Trouble sleeping or nightmares

Abused adolescents may exhibit additional or different signs, including:

  1. Prostitution
  2. Sexually transmitted diseases
  3. Pregnancy
  4. Alcohol and/or drug use
  5. Aggressive, disruptive, and sometimes illegal behavior
  6. Self-destructive behavior (suicidal attempts or thoughts, self mutilation)
  7. Eating disorders
  8. Running away

To understand what is normal and healthy sexual behavior in children, we recommend reading the following: “Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors: What’s Natural and Healthy” by Toni Cavanagh Johnson. This pamphlet is available at and is also available in Spanish.